March 26, 2020

Coronavirus deniers spread a deadly message


The coronavirus has killed more than 20,800 worldwide, and still there are people denying it exists. These are people who, ignoring not only facts but also others’ grief, find time (probably during their quarantine) to push disinformation online about COVID-19.

From a fact-checkers’ perspective – and also from a humanitarian point of view – I would suggest caution when dismissing this group as digital clowns or simple lunatics. They are also dangerous actors who might cause real harm to society. So fact-checkers and other journalists should be on alert for content that denies this obvious crisis and the scientific facts that support it. Some already are.

Last week, the U.S based fact-checking organization PolitiFact debunked a Facebook post with 8,000 shares claiming that “there is no virus.” Daniel Funke, our former collaborator, methodically traced the origins of the new coronavirus to the city of Wuhan, China, and listed all of the World Health Organization’s scientific data to show that the virus not only exists but threatens all of us.

But the denialism still shows up, and it is as far-flung as the pandemic.

On Sunday, coronavirus-deniers surfaced in my home country of Brazil. A popular video posted by Olavo de Carvalho, a political commentator and far-right figure who is one of the most important supporters of the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, appeared online to express “his opinion” on this issue: “This pandemic simply doesn’t exist. We don’t have a single death that has been traced back to the coronavirus. And to confirm that relationship, we would need to examine each organ of those who have died recently.”

The effect of disinformation is immediate. Leonardo, a famous Brazilian country music singer, took the microphone during a concert and said: “Thirty million people in this country are HIV-positive and, let’s be real here, no one uses a condom. Now they say we have 900 people infected with this virus and we have to use a mask?” Then he laughed, and some people in the audience did too. The video went viral. Both Carvalho and Leonardo are considered influencers.

Facebook and other social media companies have taken steps to remove or block harmful or misleading content, which no doubt includes posts from people who say it doesn’t exist.

On Monday, observing the spread of coronavirus-deniers, Twitter decided to act (at least in Brazil). The platform deleted tweets published by congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of Bolsonaro’s sons, and by Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian minister of environment. They had shared a video in which a famous doctor minimized the danger related to coronavirus and suggested that people should maintain their normal lives. In their posts, however, Bolsonaro and Salles didn’t mention the fact that the video had been recorded in early January and that the doctor has already revised his view and is now one of the loudest voices in the fight against coronavirus.

The fact that the platforms are eager to collaborate in tamping down this activity is good news. Fact-checkers are used to people who deny science. But unlike other conspiracy theorists – the flat-earthers, for example – coronavirus-deniers are potentially life-threatening.

— Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN

. . . technology

  • Coronavirus has revived Facebook as people stuck in their homes use the platform to connect to one another, reported The New York Times, which reviewed an internal analysis of the company’s traffic.
    • “The report shows that Facebook is closely monitoring people’s news habits during a critical period and actively trying to steer them toward authoritative sources in what amounts to a global, real-time experiment in news distribution,” The Times said.
  • Mother Jones writer Sinduja Rangarajan explained why falsehoods are so hard to control in WhatsApp, calling it a petri dish of coronavirus misinformation.

. . . politics

  • Researchers at the University of Notre Dame are using artificial intelligence to develop an early warning system that will identify manipulated images, deepfake videos and disinformation online, Science Daily reported.
    • “Memes are easy to create and even easier to share,” said Tim Weninger, associate professor in the department of computer science and engineering. “When it comes to political memes, these can be used to help get out the vote, but they can also be used to spread inaccurate information and cause harm.”
  • Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden told Whoopi Goldberg on The View that misinformation is the No. 1 thing he’s most concerned about regarding coronavirus.

. . . science and health

  • We know the magnitude of coronavirus misinformation has overwhelmed fact-checkers. Snopes on March 20 showed just how dire the problem is, saying it would scale back “routine” content production and focus its efforts “only where we think we can have a significant impact.”
    •  “Yes, publishing less may seem counterintuitive,” the team wrote in a blog post, “but exhausting our staff in this crisis is not the cure for what is ailing our industry.”
  • China is taking a page from Russia’s disinformation in spreading chaos and confusion about coronavirus and its origins, CyberScoop reported.
    • “China was much more focused on narrative creation and control [before],” Laura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said during a disinformation webinar hosted by the nonprofit CyberPeace Institute.
    • Twitter, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast that coronavirus disinformation spread by senior Chinese government officials does not violate the platform’s terms of service.

At the risk of appearing to create a Shefali Luthra fan club, this week I am choosing (for the third time in a year) one of her fact-checks from the Kaiser Health News/PolitiFact partnership.

This one looks at the claim by President Donald Trump that the coronavirus outbreak “snuck up on us” and was “a very unforeseen thing.” That was not the case, as Luthra shows by reviewing the record, which includes warnings from within Trump’s own cabinet that the virus was developing as a major threat to the United States.

After he said it, Trump’s critics savaged him on Twitter. But Twitter is one thing; a well-crafted fact-check is another.

What we liked: Trump’s handling of the virus and the U.S. response will likely be a defining issue in the fall campaign, as the press and the president’s opponents examine “what he knew and when he knew it” as part of their effort to hold the government accountable for missteps. Luthra’s fact-check anticipates this, and she put it together within 24 hours of his statement.

– Susan Benkelman, API

  1. “Fly-by-night” businesses are using a popular technology tool, Shopify, to cash in on the coronavirus pandemic, The New York Times reported.
  2. Howard Schneider, executive director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, has some advice to help people “navigate the COVID-19 information tsunami.”
  3. The Cambodian government is using the coronavirus outbreak to lock up opposition activists and others expressing concern about the virus, according to the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch. A 14-year-old girl was among those arrested and questioned, the group said.
  4. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has established a website called “Coronavirus Rumor Control” to fight disinformation about the outbreak.
  5. And, finally, our only non-coronavirus-related item: Rose Eveleth, a contributor at Wired, went down what she called a rabbit hole to get to the bottom of a historical fake – that picture of Teddy Roosevelt on a moose.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to

Cristina and Susan

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Cristina Tardáguila is the International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director. She was born in May 1980, in Brazil, and has lived in Rio de Janeiro for…
Cristina Tardáguila

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